Who’s Afraid of the Social Gospel? (Acts 5:12-16)

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The local church is a powerful, world-influencing, world-changing institution. Along with the family, this is precisely how God intended it to be.

I have been reading, with great benefit, a book by Mark Liederbach and Alvin Reid entitled The Convergent Church. The authors compare the traditional church with which most are familiar with the Emergent Church movement, and seek to honestly assess what is negative and what is positive about each model. In a section dealing with the subject of mission, Liederbach and Reid write,

We should understand that God created the human race with the mission of filling the earth with worshipers [and] that it would be through worshipful obedience that the mission would be completed. Thus, morality and ethics—a life of just behaviour and Christlike character—is part and parcel of the mission God has in mind for his people as a means to expanding the worship of his name.

In other words, it is through the gospel and through the fruit of the gospel—changed lives and involvement in society—that the world will be changed.

But it should be noted that the matter of the church changing the world is a real problem for a great many Christians. Many believers are of the conviction that the task of the church is to save souls, not to change society. “We should preach the gospel and leave social issues to others.” One man in the 1970s said rather crassly that any effort by the church to change society is simply polishing brass on a sinking ship.

I spend very little time reading blogs and no time at all on Facebook, but I am aware that there is a debate as I write these words in the blogosphere about Christians being involved in social issues. Time magazine recently spoke about the Reconstructionist or Dominionist Movement, which is a movement about the gospel so changing lives that the law of God is eventually brought in to rule a people.

In the midst of all these debates, there is a great fear—at least among evangelicals—that if we become involved in social issues that we will lose sight of the gospel and that we will eventually fall prey to the social gospel. Liederbach and Reid have a chapter in their book entitled, “Who’s Afraid of the Social Gospel?” and it is from them that I borrow the title for this study.

If you will follow my line of reasoning in this study it is important that you understand exactly what the social gospel is. The social gospel is the teaching that the essence of the Christian mission is to make the world a better place in which to live. Underlying the theology of the social gospel—or the lack thereof—is the idea that man can provide the answers to the world’s problems.

The social gospel teaches that we are fundamentally called to follow the ethic of Jesus and to therefore feed the hungry, educate the powerless, heal the sick and alleviate suffering. The emphasis is upon physical, material and economic issues—thus the term, social. In fact, there is little or no proclamation of the gospel of Christ, and the social gospel essentially promotes a form of self-sufficiency. It is a very popular form of do-goodism.

Sadly, the social gospel has done very little good for the church. As an American, and as a pastor who is familiar with the religious scene in America, I can point to denomination after denomination that has been obliterated of all spiritual life as a result of embracing the social gospel. And we can be sure that the results of the social gospel in America will be the same wherever it is embraced.

It is also important that we have a basic understanding of what it was that produced the social gospel. How did this teaching come about? Without delving too deep into its history, the social gospel found its roots in modernism. This was the belief that humans are clever enough to figure things out by themselves. In modernism, God became irrelevant, because mankind had all the answers. Science became the new god, and the scientific method the new power of god for salvation. The solution to the world’s problems lay in education, horticulture, economy, etc.

The result of this for the church was that salvation was redefined. Churches began to embrace the philosophy that God is on our side and we just need to all work together to solve humanity’s problems. Social justice became the primary focus, and it was all nothing more than a form of works righteousness.

The result of the social gospel was that the true gospel became increasingly marginalised until it almost completely lost in mainline churches (Methodist, Presbyterian, Anglican, etc.). So-called Christian organisations began that soon lost distinctive Christian content (World Vision, Christian Aid, etc.). Nominal Christianity became exponential and moralism replaced the gospel. Ecumenalism gained ascendency and amoralism soon replaced any semblance of Christian ethics. The church became more effeminate. And the result, as can be seen by the religious horizon of much of the West today, is a world that is far worse off than before!

There certainly seems to be good reason to fear the social gospel. Because of the above, many evangelicals become concerned when believers begin to get involved in such social issues as opposition to abortion, feeding the poor, educating the illiterate or political action. The moment we begin addressing such issues there is a tendency within much of the evangelical church to write off our concern as social gospel.

Most evangelicals in the mid-1900s responded to the social gospel with an either-or approach. They created a false dichotomy. Their understanding was that the church must either preach the gospel or meet social needs. The two approaches were deemed mutually exclusive. You could not be involved in the one and faithful to the other. And, of course, a great number of evangelical churches—in spectacular knee-jerk fashion—chose to preach the gospel and to ignore social needs.

Interestingly, another major theological movement accompanied the rise of the social gospel: dispensationalism. Dispensationalism was popularised by the Scofield Reference Bible. Dispensationalism arose in the UK in the 1830s as a new approach to the interpretation of Scripture. This theology created a distinct cleavage between the old and the new covenant. The New Testament was rooted in the Old Testament but, in reality, whilst the Old Testament was beneficial for illustrations, it had no real relevance to the new covenant church. The Old Testament pertained to Israel; the New Testament pertains to the church.

Until then, postmillennialism—or at least optimistic amillennialism—was the predominant eschatology of the church, but by the 1940s premillennialism had gained overwhelming favour. Premillennialism was the necessary eschatological outlook of dispensationalism, which was largely pessimistic in its approach to the future. Dispensational premillennialism made it virtually impossible to intellectually expect the church to change the world. It taught that the world would get worse and worse until Jesus returned to render final judgement. Only after the return of Christ would the great promises of gospel conquest find their fulfilment in space and time. There could be no realistic expectation of victory for the gospel in the church age. The task of evangelism and world mission became simply about pulling a few people from a house on fire (hell) without actually worrying about the house.

Evangelicals who embraced dispensationalism began to view the world as hopelessly careening of the moral cliff. Their eschatology justified their hopeless indolence. Their belief that the church of their day was in “the Laodicean Church Age” put their consciences to sleep. In fact, they saw those who preached and practiced what they considered to be the social gospel as being entirely apostate. The rise of the social gospel was simply another evidence that they lived in the end times.

Out of loyalty to Christ—or at least what they perceived to be loyalty to Christ—these evangelicals steered clear of the World Council of Churches (which was wise!) as they clung tenaciously to evangelistic crusades. Yes, evangelicals became afraid of the social gospel.

Of course, these evangelicals were not entirely wrong in their theology. We ought to be afraid of the social gospel. But this is not necessarily the same as being afraid of seeking social justice. We should desire justice for all in a fallen world, and we should look to the gospel as being the power of God to bring this about.

Afraid of the Social Gospel

The church of Jesus Christ ought to oppose the social gospel. The social gospel can rightly be defined as “another gospel” that does not find its root in apostolic teaching. Therefore, those who teach the social gospel ought legitimately to be considered “accursed” (Galatians 1:8-9). In this sense, we should be “afraid” of the social gospel.

Make no mistake: There is a resurgence of the social gospel in our own day, and it must be opposed.

When we are told that the reversal of Roe v. Wade (the landmark legal decision that paved the way for legalised abortion in America) will revive and save America, and in turn Western society, we should reject that. This is not the gospel.

When we are told that the elimination of poverty or the education of the masses will save South Africa, we should reject that. This is not the gospel.

When we are told that the world’s salvation lies in solving hunger problems in Ethiopia or in getting active in politics or in ending human trafficking, we must reject that. This is not the gospel.

These are all very real social issues, but they do not constitute the gospel that Paul preached. When these and other social issues are presented as the solution to mankind’s problem, they ought to be rejected as “another gospel” just as assuredly as the Galatians were exhorted to reject Judaistic legalism as “another gospel” in Paul’s time.

The social gospel is not the gospel. It is not God-centred. It is not Christ-centred. It is not cross-centred. It is not grace-centred. It is man-centred, and that is bad news. Any hope offered to man apart from the gospel of God is not the gospel; it is a false gospel, and it must be rejected.

Unafraid of Social Involvement

But opposing the social gospel does not equate to non-involvement in social issues. The fear that people will substitute social concern for the gospel must never lead us to abandon social concern as our responsibility. Social concern is not our message, but it is a major means for proclamation of the gospel message. We must not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Paul rejected legalism, but not the law (Romans 7:12; 1 Timothy 1:8). Similarly, we should reject the social gospel, but not turn a blind eye to social need. As Ed Clowney says, “contemporary Christianity needs both Billy Graham’s concern for saving souls and the World Council of Churches’ interest in saving social structures.”

For too long, evangelicals have embraced a false dichotomy. It is time for us to reject this false either-or mentality and to embrace a biblical both-and worldview.

We must reject social concern as a gospel and simultaneously embrace our responsibility for social concern. We must reject the meeting of social needs as the reason for the church’s existence while at the same time embracing the meeting of social and physical needs as the church’s responsibility. We must reject any specific area of justice as the area of the church’s concern ant at the same time accept our responsibility to speak to specific areas of injustice. This is the proper, biblical approach to social issues.

Stated positively, we must accept both the responsibilities of gospel proclamation and of social action. And this both-and worldview is illustrated in the text before us in this study.

The Biblical Approach

As I have already stated, the biblical approach to all of the above is a both-and approach. That is, we ought to faithfully declare the gospel alone as the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, while at the same time showing practical concern for the social issues of our day.

Our text (vv. 12-16) rests on the foundation of vv. 1-11, which records the story of Ananias and Sapphira. There, we witness both law and grace in action. On the one hand, there was frightening discipline, and on the other faithful discipleship. We find in that text a grieving church and a growing church, a pure church and a productive church. The church stood against sin and resulted in the salvation of sinners. There was confrontation of sin and the conversion of sinners. There was death and life, judgement and justification.

Also evident in the text of Acts is that there was both spiritual and physical ministry in the local church, and this was in answer to prayer. Our text is precipitated upon an earlier portion of Luke’s narrative. After they experienced their first bout of opposition as recorded in Acts 4, the apostles reported to the church what had taken place. A prayer meeting followed in which these words were prayed: “Now, Lord, look on their threats, and grant to Your servants that with all boldness they may speak Your word, by stretching out Your hand to heal, and that signs and wonders may be done through the name of Your holy Servant Jesus.” There was immediate evidence that God heard this prayer when “the place where they were assembled together was shaken; and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and they spoke the word of God with boldness” (Acts 4:29-31).

Now, notice carefully what they prayed. In response to opposition they prayed for boldness to speak God’s Word, and specifically asked that God would give them opportunity to do so “by stretching out Your hand to heal, and that signs and wonders may be done through the name of Your holy Servant Jesus.” They saw physical ministry (“stretching out Your hand to heal”) as intimately connected to spiritual ministry (“boldness [to] speak Your word”). Evidently, they did not suffer from the either-or dichotomy.

In our present text, we see that God answered their prayer. Luke informs us that “through the hands of the apostles many signs and wonders were done among the people.” As “believers were increasingly added to the Lord” the people of Jerusalem “brought the sick out into the streets and laid them on beds and couches, that at least the shadow of Peter passing by might fall on some of them. Also a multitude gathered from the surrounding cities, bringing sick people and those who were tormented by unclean spirits, and they were all healed.”

I doubt that anyone would seriously accuse the Jerusalem church of caving to the social gospel, but clearly they displayed some concern for social need. They saw the social dimension as a means to reaching the spiritual dimension. They saw meeting the social needs of their community as a means of proof, as evidence of what God could do in the ultimate, spiritual dimension.

We must not miss this fact: The text before us highlights spiritual and social concern. In fact, these two dimensions mingle virtually unnoticed. Conversions multiplied as conditions were rectified. As conversions multiplied more physical needs were met. There was no either-or tension. Luke highlights a connection between healing the sick and delivering the demonised. Social maladies were (and are) spiritual issues! They seemingly took their cue from Jesus, who at one point in His ministry sent home a formerly demonised man, who begged to follow Him, not to preach the gospel or start a church, but to “tell [his friends] what great things the Lord has done for you, and how He has had compassion on you” (Mark 5:18-20). Jesus’ instruction to the man was to tell his friends how God had ministered to his physical need, which in fact was evidence of spiritual ministry. The apostles embraced this understanding of church ministry. To them, social concern was intricately woven with gospel ministry. They understood the both-and mentality to be biblical.

I would suggest that we need this same understanding. There need not be a distinction between our gospel proclamation and our social outreach. No, social concern must never supplant our commitment to the gospel of Christ, but we ought not to ignore the social needs that surround us. William Wilberforce was driven by his commitment to the gospel to work to the abolition of slavery, and we need to have similar concerns.

Let me offer a simple illustration of this principle. I am a pastor, a husband a father and a neighbour. The most important thing I do each Lord’s Day is to proclaim God’s Word from the pulpit of Brackenhurst Baptist Church. But that is not the only important thing I do each Lord’s Day. Several hours after our evening service, I am involved in another important event. In our neighbourhood there is a problem with crime. Some time ago, residents of our neighbourhood decided that they had had enough of the housebreaking, theft and murder in the area and so formed a neighbourhood watch program, in which I am involved every week.

Now, let me just state for the record my belief that, when enough people are saved, criminal activity in a society will noticeably decrease. Christians do not break into houses, steal others’ possessions, or commit murder. Rampant criminalism is a direct result of rejection of God’s law and gospel. But when people are saved—when the gospel conquers a society—people begin living according to God’s Word and such sins begin to decline.

Of course, proclamation of the gospel is absolutely essential to this end. People are saved by hearing the gospel, and God’s ordained means for people to hear the gospel is preaching (Romans 10:14). Therefore, the most important thing that I can do on any given Lord’s Day is to preach the gospel and pray that the Spirit would use it to save souls. And I believe that God will answer this prayer.

But in the meantime, I am involved in neighbourhood watch. When I was first approached with the request to be involved, I did not object that I am doing my bit for the neighbourhood by preaching the gospel. The social need was obvious. The benefit of a consistent and organised neighbourhood watch program was evident. And, in fact, I was compelled by the gospel to fulfil my responsibility to my family and my neighbours (Romans 8:1-4).

The result has been positive. Since the implementation of the neighbourhood watch program, crime in our immediate area has decreased exponentially. The community has changed—in one area. And when I travel to minister to missionaries or to preach at other churches, I rest a little easier knowing that the neighbourhood watch is ministering socially to my family back home.

Of course, I am not under the impression that my involvement in neighbourhood watch will save souls. But it helps meet an immediate social need and—who knows?—it may actually be one means toward gospel conquest. I have had wonderful opportunities driving around the neighbourhood in the early hours of the morning to minister the gospel to residents of our area. And who knows whether God may see fit to use neighbourhood watch to spare some lives so that they might hear the gospel preached to them?

Neighbourhood watch is not the gospel, but neither is my involvement in it a denial of the gospel. And the same can be said for Christian involvement in a wide range of social issues.

In South Africa, 15-19 September was National Victim’s Rights Week. A number of people in our church used this opportunity to create a social media campaign to speak to the issue of abortion. In the act of abortion, there is always a victim as a child’s life is taken. Those in our church who are active on Facebook, Twitter and other social media outlets were encouraged to use these platforms to draw attention to the victims of abortion. The goal was not to substitute prolife ministry for the gospel; in fact, it was a commitment to the gospel that drove the campaign.

If we are committed to the gospel of Jesus Christ we should be committed to prolife issues, to ending human trafficking, to speaking out against racism and to feeding the hungry. And we should be thus committed not because these things somehow supplant the gospel, but because the gospel drives our concern for the plight of the needy. Such stands are to be taken by those who are God-centred, Christ-centred, cross-centred, grace-centred and hope-giving.

But it is precisely at this point where objections are raised. For example, some might complain that such social involvement is a distraction from the gospel. But I would ask how this is so.

Now, I do not want to deny that there is potential from distraction. If, for example, someone promotes the idea that not having an abortion makes one right with God, then indeed they have been distracted from the gospel. But if you are driven by your commitment to the gospel to pray and work for an end to abortion, this is no distraction at all.

Another objection that is sometimes raised is that such a stance on social issues only screams law and heaps guilt. And so the accusation is that my stance against abortion will only serve to make those who have had or are considering an abortion feel guilty. I certainly hope that it will make them feel guilty, for guilt paves the way for grace. My goal is not to make them feel guilty and to leave them there, but to help them to see their guilt and then to point them to the grace that is available in Christ. If my goal is to make people feel guilty then I have caved to the social gospel. But if my goal is ultimately to point them to Christ I have done no disservice whatsoever to the gospel.

Yet another objection is that our stance on social issues will anger people. Again, I certainly hope it does. Welcome to the scandal of the cross (1 Corinthians 1:20-25; 1 Peter 2:1-10). The gospel is a stumblingblock to those who do not believe. Paul angered people. He spent time in prison and was often threatened with death and physical intimidation because of his commitment to the gospel of Christ.

A final objection with which I want to deal is the opinion that we should simply stick to preaching the gospel and then the righteous approach to life will occur. While this sounds good on the surface we need to think a little about what we are saying. Let’s apply the same logic to parenting. Are you happy to simply pray for a new heart while not disciplining your children? After all, you don’t want to confuse them over law and gospel, do you? But, in fact, faithful parenting requires both law and gospel. We set rules and we thereby pave the way for grace.

In short, the biblical approach to these matters is to practice law while proclaiming the gospel. This principle applies to every social issue you might raise. The church is called to stand against injustice and to assist those in need, all the while pointing people to the ultimate solution to all of life’s ills, which is the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Conclusion

So, who is afraid of the social gospel? I am, and you should be too! But who is afraid of social involvement? I am not, and neither should you be. The solution to stay alert to both-and and to reject the false dichotomy of either-or. And the way to do this is to stay firmly planted in the gospel of God.

It has often been said that the gospel hangs between two thieves. On the one hand there is the “thief” of license and on the other there is the “thief” of legalism. Both extremes rob the gospel of its power. The only way to guard the gospel from these thieves is to know it and to proclaim it. As Reid says,

It is time . . . to recognize that “fear” of the social gospel is not only biblically unwarranted; it is also biblically irresponsible in light of the fact that Scripture clearly teaches us to engage social justice issues. While there is historical warrant in light of the failings of the “social gospel movement” to be careful of “drift,” this is no reason to be socially derelict.

The gospel is God-centred, Christ-centred, cross-centred, grace-centred and hope-giving. “O [church]! Guard what was committed to your trust, avoiding the profane and idle babblings and contradictions of what is falsely called knowledge” (1 Timothy 6:20).